Patrick's Reviews > Half Blood Blues

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
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's review
Apr 27, 2012

liked it
Read from April 27 to May 01, 2012

This is the first of the books I picked up as part of my attempt to read the entire shortlist for this year’s Orange Prize. It being a new novel by a relatively new author, I probably wouldn’t have chosen it otherwise, since I’m not the greatest fan of historical fiction or of jazz. But being nudged into reading books I might not otherwise choose is one of the more interesting things about an exercise like following a literary prize. Anyway, three stars on goodreads means ‘I liked it’, and yes: I liked it. I found it hard to love it.

It’s the story of a group of musicians holed up in Europe at the beginning of the Second World War; first in Berlin, then in Paris, they’re seeking to evade the Nazis (who they call only the ‘Boots’) while vaguely hoping to meet up and cut a record with Louis Armstrong. The star of their band is Hieronymous Falk, a horn player of superlative talent whose life passes into legend when he is taken by the Boots from a Parisian cafe in the novel’s opening scene. The rest of the book recalls the events leading up to this point, occasionally jumping forward as our narrator Sid meets up with his friend Chip in the 1990s to try to find out what really happened to Falk.

For a band of serious musicians, they don’t play an awful lot of music in the book. The parts which are actually about the music are good and well-written, but one problem is that our heroes spend an awful lot of time waiting around for things to happen to them. And they talk a lot. Not to say that the dialogue is poor, but there’s just so much of it, and after a while you find yourself breezing through whole sequences with little idea of what really happened.

The War is both there and not there. This is quite interesting but it’s also kind of a problem. The narrator and his friends are necessarily isolated by their mixed race(s) and their profession, both in Berlin and in Paris, but this proves problematic from a narrative point of view: since they’re basically confined to a series of seedy rooms for most of the book, both cities and their inhabitants come to resemble one another a little too closely, with only a few isolated sequences (the baths, the Louis Armstrong bit, the visit to the zoo) being memorable enough to really stand out. The Boots themselves have little role beyond that of pantomime goblins, only appearing stage left whenever a character needs doing away with in a vaguely portentous way. And actually I began thinking how interesting it would be if these elements were developed in a less conventional and more expressive, abstract way - if only the author made it a book about seedy rooms and goblins rather than War and Jazz and Nazis! - but this was not to be.

I don’t want to sound like I’m being over-critical, since I really did enjoy the book while I was reading it. But my feeling is that it ended up on the Orange shortlist because it’s the kind of thing on which readers can easily agree to compromise. Everybody likes it a little, a few people will like it a lot, and very few people will have any objection to it; such books usually do very well with these prizes. It’s a solid, entertaining read, intelligent without the possibility of being thought too ‘clever’, and with absolutely nothing really difficult or uncomfortable about it. In fact, it confirms pretty much all the expectations a reasonably intelligent and politically liberal reader will already have about music, war and race. All of which is fine. But it is, in the end, just fine. I kept wishing it to just go slightly further than it did.
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